BY CHRIS MCNULTY
KEVIN McHugh has been ruled out for Finn Harps’ trip to Dublin to face Shelbourne in the top-of-the-table battle tonight at Tolka Park (kick-off 8pm).
The Harps captain has not played since the opening day draw with Waterford United because of an ongoing hamstring problem. While the Harps manager, Ollie Horgan, had hoped for the veteran striker’s return ahead of their meeting with Shels, the Killea native will not be able to feature against Johnny McDonnell’s side.
It leaves Horgan with something of a conundrum, given that Sean McCarron will be out until May with a fractured cheekbone and an early accumulation of four booking means that Ruairi Keating has been handed a one-game suspension to be served this week.
Paul McVeigh, who happened to score the equalising goal in Saturday’s one-all draw with Galway FC in Ballybofey, is the only available striker for the game and it seems a given that the Portsalon man will be the sole prong at the tip of the Harps attack.
“I had hoped that Kevin would be available for some game time, but that isn’t a runner,” confirmed Horgan this week.
“He hasn’t resumed training yet so we’ll have to just plan without him.”
Although Ciaran Coll – who is filling the captaincy in McHugh’s absence – has had a reoccurrence of a chest problem this week, the left-back will play against the side with whom Harps share the top spot in the First Division.
Already facing an uphill task, Harps’ hopes haven’t been helped with the loss of a 21-goal duo from last season in McHugh and McCarron while the suspended Keating, on loan from Sligo Rovers, had been one of Harps’ bright lights this season.
Having been booked in each of the opening four games of the season – including the League Cup meeting with Cockhill Celtic – he sits out through a suspension. The lively front man was also booked against Galway and Horgan has had a word with the youngster about his disciplinary record.
Horgan said: “He has a lot to learn and he does need to improve that part of his game. That’s all part of the game now and we see this week – when Ruairi is missing for a big game because of a suspension – how important the discipline is. He’s an awful loss to us because he had been playing very well for us. He’s been one of our better performers so far in the season. If we had him going up to Tolka, we could look at a different, more attacking line-up.”
Harps and Shelbourne have not met since 2011, the year Shels won promotion back to the Premier Division.
A four-nil rout against Harps that October confirmed their passage into the Premier Division. Horgan expects Shels – whose one-all draw at Shamrock Rovers B on Sunday tees up the top-two tilt tonight – to have a similarly strong outfit this time around. McDonnell has a full panel from which to choose tonight.
“This, by a mile, is our biggest test yet,” the Harps manager said.
“We’ll be up against it, big time.
“What they have is an outstanding panel. The likes of Stephen McDonnell, Philip Hand, Brian Gannon, John Sullivan, Conor Murphy and Jordan Keegan are all smashing players – Premier Division players. Go through their panel – it’s littered with class players.”
Horgan was in Tallaght on Sunday to watch the game. Rovers were boosted by the inclusion of Rob Cornwall, Robert Bayly and Karl Sheppard, the first time they’ve been able to call upon players from the Hoops’ first-team squad, but Shels got a draw when Brian Gannon cancelled out Daniel Purdy’s opener.
“Shamrock Rovers were a lot stronger than they were the day we played them,” said Horgan.
“That said, Shelbourne could have got a couple of goals on them early on in that game.”
Given his dearth of attacking options, it seems likely that McVeigh coming in for Keating could be the only change in his team.
As for his approach, containment will be the aim of the night.
The Harps boss said: “I’d be afraid if we go one down early on. We have to keep it as tight as possible for as long as possible.
“We don’t have enough attacking options to go straight at them. We’ll hope to keep it tight for long periods.”
While Galway played for over an hour with ten men on Saturday night (Derek O’Brien was red carded in the 26th minute), it was the Tribesmen who were on top for long spells. Horgan, on reflection, was satisfied to have got out of the game with a point.
“We didn’t play well enough to deserve anything more out of the game,” he noted, although he was particularly encouraged by some of the character on view from his side, particularly in the second half.
“There was a doggedness about us that I liked, a resilience about us that show me that, yeah, we have something to work with here. Our passing was poor and our distribution was too, but we got something out of it, which was the big positive.”